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Simple life change could improve cognitive health in those at risk of Alzheimer’s disease

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Increasing activity for as little as six months can help improve cognitive health and ward off Alzheimer’s disease among those at risk of developing the condition, according to research.

A new study has shown that engaging in physical activity improves brain glucose metabolism and mental flexibility, important functions required to prevent dementia. It has also been found to positively impact cardiorespiratory fitness.

The health benefits of an improved lifestyle have been well documented when it comes to the prevention of type 2 diabetes and remission, but an American research team wanted to see how physical activity might affect people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

As life expectancy increases and people live longer, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is set to increase. Current treatment is limited, so preventative treatment would be incredibly beneficial.

The condition is the most common cause of dementia and the symptoms normally include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.

The trial involved 23 people with a family history or genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease who lived a sedentary lifestyle. Prior to starting the trial all the participants had their vital statistics and fitness levels measured. They also had their brain health assessed.

They were then randomly assigned into groups. One group was given information about a healthy lifestyle and becoming more active but were not required to act upon it. In comparison, the other group was participated in a moderate intensity treadmill training programme with a personal trainer, three times per week for 26 weeks.

By the end of the trial period, those who had embarked upon the physical exercise programme had improved their cardiorespiratory fitness.

They also scored significantly better than the sedentary group in cognitive tests.

Dr Ozioma Okonkwo, lead investigator at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said: “This study is a significant step toward developing an exercise prescription that protects the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, even among people who were previously sedentary.

“This research shows that a lifestyle behaviour – regular aerobic exercise – can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease.

“The findings are especially relevant to individuals who are at a higher risk due to family history or genetic predisposition. An important next step would be to conduct a larger, more definitive, study. If these findings are replicated, they would have a tremendous impact on quality of later life, providing individuals with more years of independent living, active engagement with loved ones, and building memories.”

The findings have been published in the journal Brain Plasticity.

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